Gateway to the Classics: Master Skylark by John Bennett
Master Skylark by  John Bennett


The Lord Admiral's Players

dropcap image HERE was an unwonted buzzing in the east end of Stratford on that next to the last day of April, 1596. It was as if some one had thrust a stick into a hive of bees and they had come whirling out to see. The low stone guard-wall of old Clopton bridge, built a hundred years before by rich Sir Hugh, sometime Mayor of London, was lined with straddling boys, like strawberries upon a spear of grass, and along the low causeway from the west across the lowland to the town, brown-faced, barefoot youngsters sat beside the roadway with their chubby legs a-dangle down the mossy stones, staring away into the south across the grassy levels of the valley of the Stour.

Punts were poling slowly up the Avon to the bridge; and at the outlets of the town, where the streets came down to the waterside among the weeds, little knots of men and serving-maids stood looking into the south and listening.

Some had waited for an hour, some for two; yet still there was no sound but the piping of the birds in white-thorn hedges, the hollow lowing of kine knee-deep in grassy meadows, and the long rush of the river through the sedge beside the pebbly shore; and naught to see but quiet valleys, primrose lanes, and Warwick orchards white with bloom, stretching away to the misty hills.

But still they stood and looked and listened.

The wind came stealing up out of the south, soft and warm and sweet and still, moving the ripples upon the river with gray gusts; and, scudding free before the wind, a dog came trotting up the road with wet pink tongue and sidelong gait. At the throat of Clopton bridge he stopped and scanned the way with dubious eye, then clapped his tail between his legs and bolted for the town. The laughing shout that followed him into the Warwick road seemed not to die away, but to linger in the air like the drowsy hum of bees—a hum that came and went at intervals upon the shifting wind, and grew by littles, taking body till it came unbroken as a long, low, distance-muffled murmur from the south, so faint as scarcely to be heard.

Nick Attwood pricked his keen young ears. "They're coming, Robin—hark'e to the trampling!"

Robin Getley held his breath and turned his ear toward the south. The far-off murmur was a mutter now, defined and positive, and, as the two friends listened, grew into a drumming roll, and all at once above it came a shrill, high sound like the buzzing of a gnat close by the ear.

Little Tom Davenant dropped from the finger-post, and came running up from the fork of the Banbury road, his feet making little white puffs in the dust as he flew. "They are coming! they are coming!" he shrieked as he ran.

Then up to his feet sprang Robin Getley, upon the saddle-backed coping-stones, his hand upon Nick Attwood's head to steady himself, and looked away where the rippling Stour ran like a thread of silver beside the dust-buff London road, and the little church of Atherstone stood blue against the rolling Cotswold Hills.

"They are coming! they are coming!" shrilled little Tom, and scrambled up the coping like a squirrel up a rail.

A stir ran out along the guard-wall, some crying out, some starting up. "Sit down! sit down!" cried others, peering askance at the water gurgling green down below. "Sit down, or we shall all be off!"

Robin held his hand above his eyes. A cloud of dust was rising from the London road and drifting off across the fields like smoke when the old ricks burn in damp weather—a long, broad-sheeted mist; and in it were bits of moving gold, shreds of bright colors vaguely seen, and silvery gleams like the glitter of polished metal in the sun. And as he looked the shifty wind came down out of the west again and whirled the cloud of dust away, and there he saw a long line of men upon horses coming at an easy canter up the highway. Just as he had made this out the line came rattling to a stop, the distant drumming of hoofs was still, and as the long file knotted itself into a rosette of ruddy color amid the April green, a clear, shrill trumpet blew and blew again.

"They are coming!" shouted Robin, "they are coming!" and, turning, waved his cap.

A shout went up along the bridge. Those down below came clambering up, the punts came poling with a rush of foam, and a ripple ran along the edge of Stratford town like the wind through a field of wheat. Windows creaked and doors swung wide, and the workmen stopped in the garden-plots to lean upon their mattocks and to look.

"They are coming!" bellowed Rafe Hickathrift, the butcher's boy, standing far out in the street, with his red hands to his mouth for a trumpet, "they are coming!" and at that the doors of Bridge street grew alive with eager eyes.

At early dawn the Oxford carrier had brought the news that the players of the Lord High Admiral were coming up to Stratford out of London from the south, to play on May-day there; and this was what had set the town to buzzing like a swarm. For there were in England then but three great companies, the High Chamberlain's, the Earl of Pembroke's men and the stage-players of my Lord Charles Howard, High Admiral of the Realm; and the day on which they came into a Midland market-town to play was one to mark with red and gold upon the calendar of the uneventful year.

Away by the old mill-bridge there were fishermen angling for dace and perch; but when the shout came down from the London road they dropped their poles and ran, through the willows and over the gravel, splashing and thrashing among the rushes and sandy shallows, not to be last when the players came. And old John Carter coming down the Warwick road with a load of hay, laid on the lash until piebald Dobbin snorted in dismay and broke into a lumbering run to reach the old stone bridge in time.

The distant horsemen now were coming on again, riding in double file. They had flung their banners to the breeze, and on the changing wind, with the thumping of horses' hoofs, came by snatches the sound of a kettledrummer drawing his drumhead tight, and beating as he drew, and the muffled blasts of a trumpeter proving his lips.

Fynes Morrison and Walter Stirley, who had gone to Cowslip lane to meet the march, were running on ahead, and shouting as they ran: "There's forty men, and sumpter-mules! and, oh, the bravest banners and attire—and the trumpets are a cloth-yard long! Make room for us, make room for us, and let us up!"

A bowshot off, the trumpets blew a blast so high, so clear, so keen, that it seemed a flame of fire in the air, and as the brassy fanfare died away across the roofs of the quiet town, the kettledrums clanged, the cymbals clashed, and all the company began to sing the famous old song of the hunt:

"The hunt is up, the hunt is up,

Sing merrily we, the hunt is up!

The wild birds sing,

The dun deer fling,

The forest aisles with music ring!

Tantara, tantara, tantara!

"Then ride along, ride along,

Stout and strong!

Farewell to grief and care;

With a rollicking cheer

For the high dun deer

And a life in the open air!

Tantara, the hunt is up, lads;

Tantara, the bugles bray!

Tantara, tantara, tantara,

Hio, hark away!"

The first of the riders had reached old Clopton bridge, and the banners strained upon their staves in the freshening river-wind. The trumpeters and the drummers led, their horses prancing, white plumes waving in the breeze, and the April sunlight dancing on the brazen horns and the silver bellies of the kettledrums.

Then came the banners of the company, curling down with a silky swish, and unfurling again with a snap, like a broad-lashed whip. The greatest one was rosy red, and on it was a gallant ship upon a flowing sea, bearing upon its mainsail the arms of my Lord Charles Howard, High Admiral of England. Upon its mate was a giant-bearded man with a fish's tail, holding a trident in his hand and blowing upon a shell, the Triton of the seas which England ruled; this flag was bright sea-blue. The third was white, and on it was a red wild rose with a golden heart, the common standard of the company.

After the flags came twoscore men, the players of the Admiral, the tiring-men, grooms, horse-boys, and serving-knaves, well mounted on good horses, and all of them clad in scarlet tabards blazoned with the coat-armor of their master. Upon their caps they wore the famous badge of the Howards, a rampant silver demi-lion; and beneath their tabards at the side could be seen their jerkins of many-colored silk, their silver-buckled belts, and long, thin Spanish rapiers, slapping their horses on the flanks at every stride. Their legs were cased in high-topped riding-boots of tawny cordovan, with gilt spurs, and the housings of their saddles were of blue with the gilt anchors of the admiralty upon them. On their bridles were jingling bits of steel, which made a constant tinkling, like a thousand little bells very far away.

Some had faces smooth as boys and were quite young; and others wore sharp-pointed beards with stiff-waxed mustaches, and were older men, with a tinge of iron in their hair and lines of iron in their faces, hardened by the life they led; and some, again, were smooth-shaven, so often and so closely that their faces were blue with the beard beneath the skin. But, oh, to Nicholas Attwood and the rest of Stratford boys, they were a dashing, rakish, admirable lot, with the air of something even greater than lords, and a keen knowingness in their sparkling, worldly eyes that made a common wise man seem almost a fool beside them!

And so they came riding up out of the south:

"Then ride along, ride along,

Stout and strong!

Farewell to grief and care;

With a rollicking cheer

For the high dun deer

And a life in the open air!"

"Hurrah! hurrah! God save the Queen!"

A dropping shout went up the street like an arrow-flight scattering over the throng; and the players, waving their scarlet caps until the long line tossed like a poppy-garden in a summer rain, gave a cheer that fairly set the crockery to dancing upon the shelves of the stalls in Middle Bow.

"Hurrah!" shouted Nicholas Attwood, his blue eyes shining with delight. "Hurrah, hurrah, for the Admiral's men!" And high in the air he threw his cap, as a wild cheer broke from the eddying crowd, and the arches of the long gray bridge rang hollow with the tread of hoofs. Whiff, came the wind; down dropped the hat upon the very saddle-peak of one tall fellow riding along among the rest. Catching it quickly as it fell, he laughed and tossed it back; and when Nick caught it whirling in the air, a shilling jingled from it to the ground.

Then up Fore Bridge street they all trooped after into Stratford town.

"Oh," cried Robin, "it is brave, brave!"

"Brave?" cried Nick. "It makes my very heart jump. And see, Robin, 'tis a shilling, a real silver shilling—oh, what fellows they all be! Hurrah for the Lord High Admiral's men!"

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